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Differentiation of Instruction in the Classroom Defined

written by: Jessica Cook • edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom • updated: 9/11/2012

Students have a vast majority of needs and educators need to teach to meet the needs of the students. Learn more about the definition of differentiation and read about its practical applications.

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    What is Differentiation?

    In the realm of special education there are many buzz words. IEP, inclusion, and least restrictive environment are just a few. Out of the variety of buzz words in special education, differentiated instruction may be the most important and most talked about.

    What is the definition of differentiation? Differentiated instruction means adapting instructional strategies to meet the needs of the students. All students learn differently. Students can be auditory learners, by hearing; visual learners, by seeing; tactile learners, by doing; or a combination of learning styles. As educators, we need to figure out how each student best learns and adapt our instruction to those students. For many educators it is difficult to change how we have been teaching, but it is necessary so that all students receive the same opportunity to learn. When it comes right down to it, differentiated instruction means different ways of teaching for different students

    Think of it this way. Let's say that I tried to explain to you how to change the tire on the car. I might show you how to do it one time, in one particular way, and then expect you to follow those instructions. What if I verbally explained it to you without a visual component? Would you be able to change the tire yourself? What if I gave up after my first attempt failed, deciding that you were simply "unteachable" when it comes to changing a tire? Differentiated instruction prevents this type of scenario from playing out in a classroom setting. It encourages teachers to try a variety of ways of teaching a skill or a concept so that every student has a chance to figure it out.


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    In the Classroom

    At the beginning of every school year or semester, I provide my students with a learning style assessment. At the end of the assessment, I can tell whether they are a visual, audio, or tactile/kinesthetic learner. This helps me tremendously in the classroom, because I identify how my students learn best. After I find the results, I also like to compile basic data for each class that I teach, just so I can quickly reference the number of visual, audio or tactile learners in each class period. This helps me when I plan my lessons for those classes and decide how I will structure my instruction each day.

    There are a variety of ways you can differentiate your instruction to meet the needs of every student. By writing notes on the board and reading them as students write, you meet the needs of both audio and visual learners at one time. However, the students that are tactile/kinesthetic learners may struggle because that is not how they learn. It is important to provide all students an opportunity to learn in all three learning styles. As an example, if you work a math problem with your class then you can write it on the board, talk about it out loud and provide manipulatives for the students to use as they work through the problem. This type of activity will reach nearly all of the students in your class by providing three ways to access the information and process it.

    Will you be able to teach every single lesson three ways to make sure you reach all of the students in your class? Probably not. The important thing is that by understanding the definition of differentiation, you can try to change up your instructional style on a regular basis. For instance, if you use an overhead projector on Monday then maybe you can incorporate a musical component in your lesson on Tuesday and have the students move about the classroom while they learn on Wednesday. This way you give each student a chance to do something that speaks to his individual strengths, even if you can't do it every day. As you teach a lesson, keep an eye on the students whose learning styles are not directly addressed; you may need to give them individual attention or assistance later in the class period to help them understand what is going on that day.

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    It's all well and good to read about differentiated instruction and how beneficial it can be for your students. What you do with that knowledge is the important thing. Here are some examples of what differentiated instruction actually looks like, using a variety of subject areas for the activities in the classroom.

    For math classes, manipulatives are easy to come by. Food is a great way for students to learn, because after the activity they get to eat their work. For example, if teaching probability, give each student a bag of candy and have them answer questions based on their candy (such as, "What is the probability of pulling a red candy out of the bag?"). Educational supply stores also have a lot of great manipulatives. For younger students, small figures or toys can be used for activities involving sorting, counting and grouping. A visual element in the math class involves using the board to work out problems or using an overhead projector. For an auditory example, speak the problems out loud or teach students a small rhyme to help them remember mathematic formulas or principles.

    For science classes, hands-on learning is the name of the game. Lab activities encourage exploration and tactile stimulation for students who are kinesthetic or active learners. Visual learners can benefit from activities including models and diagrams, while auditory learners might enjoy listening to a podcast on a recent topic in the world of science such as genome research or space exploration.

    Social studies classes can be a little bit more difficult. However, this is where project-based learning comes into play. Encourage students to work in cooperative groups to compose a short video about a period of time in history. Visual learners can create the sets for the presentation, auditory learners can put together sound effects and tactile learners can choreograph the scene. Every student can participate in the research and explanation of the project while at the same time letting their individual talents shine. Bringing in historical artifacts is another way to engage student learners; take them on a virtual tour of an archaeological dig or have a field trip to a re-enactment of a historical event.

    As for the English classes, much of the learning needs to be done either visually or by hearing, that is just how the curriculum is structured. However, extension activities can be done to provide the hands-on experience. Instead of a traditional book report, let students choose the way they will present information they learned from reading. Some students might create a character journal while others might shoot a video or record a podcast. Some might like to make a multimedia presentation while others would prefer to compose a traditional essay. Use a rubric to grade the assignments based on the information they contain and the quality of the presentation regardless of the format used.

    In non-traditional subjects like physical education or art, most of the lessons will be differentiated as compared to the regular classroom. However, in these classes incorporating some more traditional material, such as writing assignments, is a way to differentiate for students who are not as comfortable with hands-on learning.

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    As you attempt to navigate the waters of differentiated instruction, here are some online resources that can help you find the right activities for differentiated instruction for your classes:

    • North Carolina State University offers a learning style inventory that students can take online. Then they can print their results and turn them in to you. (
    • Learn More Indiana offers an online or printable assessment students can use to get to know their own learning styles better. (
    • LD Pride offers a learning style assessment that will score itself for students automatically. (
    • The University of South Dakota offers an online mini-lesson about learning styles that includes an assessment and a summary and explanation of the different learning styles. (
    • Literacy Works offers an assessment for multiple intelligences, which is another dimension of learning styles and can be especially helpful in the secondary classroom. (
    • The Birmingham Grid for Learning site also explains the multiple intelligences and provides an assessment. (